Who Needs Poetry?

What are poems for? Is there any real point in writing them? And what about us, the folks who are expected to buy all that bilge—is it quite necessary that we actually read all that bleeping poetry?

Exercising his customary acuity, C.S. Lewis tells us that poems exist to remind us that water is wet and grass is green.   In other words, they exist for the sake of telling us the truth. Tricked out, to be sure, in imagery and idiom of the most breath-catching beauty. “To purify the dialect of the tribe,” is how T.S. Eliot, the high priest of modernist poetry, famously put it in Four Quartets, a pronouncement amply sustained by the austere and luminous beauty of his own poetry.

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your liftetime’s effort.

However, in saying all that are we not also being told that it is good for water to be wet and grass to be green? Indeed, that it is not only good for these things to be, but that it is very good for anything to be? To be or not to be, is not finally a question mark. It is an affirmation, a datum. It means that despite every gravitational pull of human pessimism, there is never an advantage in choosing nothing. On what possible basis has blank extinction anything to offer? And so the maker of poems stands, resolutely, on the side of life, of being.

And were he ever to call green grass grey (“the only sin,” Chesterton tells us), what then? It would mean not only a lie—“a deliberate stupidity,” to quote Bernard Lonergan’s definition of sin—but a most unlovely lie as well. He would be sinning against the light, whose source is that Life which became the light of the world.

The true poet should find himself, therefore, in a state of constant amazement before the fact that things exist. “The impossible things that are,” to quote Chesterton at his most exultant. To which the only adequate response is sheer stunned gratitude for gifts one could never oneself give. How exactly does one go about making water wet, grass green? Or to take any page out of Hopkins—whose work is positively rhapsodic with “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,” alongside images of “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim”—how does one create any of that? Hopkins may have richly festooned his poetry with such similes, but he surely did not fashion the world in which “Pied Beauty” is set.   “Poems are made by fools like me,” Joyce Kilmer reminds us. “But only God can make a tree.” Only God, declares Hopkins, can account for such “dappled things” as “fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Of which of the higher primates can it be said that here is one clever enough to provide the raw material that prompted such lofty lyric flights? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” begins Hopkins’ most prized poem. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” In his exuberant inventory of the things of nature, in the delight he takes in seeing “the dearest freshness deep down things,” he does not begrudge God for the world he made.

Not even the hippopotamus may exist in the absence of a God who, from moment to moment, speaks his name. (And why, you may ask, does he do that for Mr. Hippo?  Because, recalling Chesterton’s wonderful quip, he could not otherwise prove that he had a sense of humor.)

Emily Dickinson, that most exquisite poet of nineteenth century New England sensibility, once told a clergyman friend of hers that, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.” It should be the chief occupation of the poet always to be startled.

In fact, less than a century later, the poet Cesare Pavese, made the same point in his own Italian way. “Poetry, that is, the cosmic dignity of the particular,” he began, “is born from the moments in which we lift up our heads and discover—with stupor—life!” It is the sheer thisness of the thing—the thing that in the very brightness of its being really does exist—that the poet is moved to celebrate. His lyric excitement may erupt into language so lovely that it succeeds even in enrapturing the readers of it. A thing so full of the energy of being is certain to survive triumphant all the nothingness that surrounds and threatens it.

Chesterton, in one of his poems, repeats the phrase “vile dust,” and so rising majestically to rebuke the grim-faced preacher who spoke the words, whose denigration of our dust G.K. will not abide, imagines the planet itself in protest, summoning the dead stone that lived beneath his feet to confront and confound the naysayer:

Come down out of your dusty shrine
The living dust to see,
The flowers that at your sermon’s end
Stand blazing silently.

Then seeing the sunshine that falls on every human head, Chesterton enjoins the preacher-man (“You, too, O cold of clay, / Eater of stones,” he calls him), to rejoice with all men who listen for the trumpet blast when, on the last day, the body of man remembers creation’s first day:

When God to all his paladins
By his own splendor swore
To make a fairer face than heaven,
Of dust and nothing more.

It is a wonderful sentiment, rendered heartbreakingly sad in these five unforgettable lines from George Herbert:

O that thou shoulds’t give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying!
All day long my heart was in my knee,
But no hearing from thee.

So, again, what is the point of a poem?   And why, when poets take the trouble to write them, must we then try and read them? Because those truths that the poet is privileged to tell us—truths about which we have, many of us, already forgotten to ask—when arrayed in forms of the most radiant beauty and delight, positively enrich the reader by their sudden and piercing glimpse into the heart of things. It is a gift no less from God himself—a prevenient grace, if you will—the impact of which moves a man to prayer. “Poetry,” writes Jacques Maritain, “is spiritual nourishment. It does not satiate, it only makes a man more hungry, and that is its grandeur.” Of course, adds Maritain, we cannot expect of poetry that it will carry us off directly to God, providing “the super substantial nourishment of the soul.”   Only God can give us God.   And to think otherwise is to fall into that most deadly of errors, that of angelism, which is the sin, says Allen Tate, “of seeking to bypass the image in the illusory pursuit of pure essence.”

So long as we remain in the body, it cannot be done.   In the meantime, however, we have recourse to poetry to help sharpen the appetite for God. Why else did he send Vergil to the side of Dante as he wandered about in the “Dark Wood of sin and error”?  The poor man is so frightened and befuddled before setting out on his pilgrim journey that direct appeals simply will not work. Ah, but he is not deaf to the voice of poetry, which yet may bestir his sluggish soul to get on with the job.

The deepest hunger of all, we are told, is the hunger for heaven. No line of poetry, however sublime, can limn that horizon. But it can set the heart aflame with desire, awakening the primal sensation of a longing that nothing else in the world can assuage.   “A poem,” writes Robert Frost,“begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” And it makes no sense, he adds elsewhere, “to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it.”

If a Hallmark greeting card were to do that, one would have grounds for a lawsuit. But real poetry is not meant to be safe. It is meant to detonate in the mind like a stick of dynamite. We can never come to an end of our need for explosions of that sort.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • fredx2

    Poetry was movies before there were movies.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Thank you for this sensitive and luminous explanation of the genius of poetry with those choice examples from the the most masterful of poets. As you you show and explain so well, poets teach us to see–to see what everyone could see but which everyone has missed until the poet leads him to see the freshness, wonder, and glory of created things, particular “dappled things,” small, delicate beautiful things, and rugged, sublime great things like the “brute beauty” Hopkins writes about in “The Windhover.” The world is indeed full, abundant, and rich as children especially teach us, as in the line from R. L. Stevenson”s A CHILD”s GARDEN OF VERSES “The world is full of a number of things/ I think we should all be as happy as kings.”.

  • Nick_Palmer3

    Great article, Regis, thanks! Sadly I never learned to read and appreciate poetry. Now in my late 50s I’m trying to catch up, albeit with limited luck. I’m truly enjoying Tony Esolen’s translation of the Comedia, although I first found the classic Mark Musa translation a few years ago. Paradise Lost I’ve tried several times, only to find myself lost in a dark wood.

    Fortunately, my daughter, soon to be 21, both reads and writes poetry extremely well. Maybe my better self will be saved by my own children…

  • Lucky

    Thanks, Regis. This really encourages my passion for poetry. Your work is deeply appreciated. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years back lamenting our culture’s loss in moving away from such.

    Poetless by L. Reynolds
    No one wants a poet anymore,
    They’re chained to Country music —
    Or hip-hop’s doggerel.
    Too much work to think it through,
    We only want it simple, mindless, sensual.
    Knowing not a Poe or Frost or Whittier,
    We grovel in Snoop and Poop and Ditty.
    Molded by the power of the words we muse,
    A culture poetless — a pity.
    God Bless. L. Reynolds

  • Frank Gibbons

    I recommend T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” to Crisis readers. Now, “Four Quartets” makes “The Wasteland” seem like a walk in the park, so be prepared to expend some effort. What helped me was to not only to read the poem multiple times but to also read it while listening to T.S. Eliot or Paul Scofield deliver their readings of “For Quartets” (on Youtube!) After finishing a section of the “Four Quartets” I would read a part of Thomas Howard’s “Dove Descending” which is his “read” on Eliot’s masterpiece. Some people criticize Eliot for being too academic and claim that he’s not a pure poet. Baloney! He writes some beautiful poetry in the midst of his profound reflections. If he was a baseball player, he’d be Ted Williams.

    There’s a beautiful reading of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” on Youtube read by a guy called Tom O’Bedlam. He also does a nice job with Hopkins “Pied Beauty”. Listening to poems being read by accomplished readers is a helpful way to appreciate their beauty and their meaning. Although, I must confess, the meaning of many poems will always be somewhat elusive and I think it is the poet’s intent to shroud his work in a bit of mystery.

  • Jdonnell

    “The job of the poet is to tell lies skillfully,” wisely said Aristotle. It may or may not contain truth. It doesn’t need to; poetry fulfills another human interest.
    I’m afraid that the pile of old books used in the illustration for this article says more than intended: the books are all old, worn, leathery and thus fill us with nostalgia, as if poetry is to be associated with joys now in the distant past.

    • Philip Sieve

      Be careful of the possibility of the untruths getting a ride into the subconscious through the allure of a beautifully-written piece of prose. The same can happen via novels and pop music, as well.

      • Jdonnell

        Untruths from literature are not limited to the subconscious, though you have a point. Truth and beauty and goodness are not by any means necessarily the same.

        • Philip Sieve

          I ‘m sure tv is more of a trojan horse in that it, according to the science, bypasses the left side of the brain the most. Some books imply it does so, totally, but it might have to do with how ctitically-thinking one is. Still, some of the modern(ist) media values may slip in and gradually take hold. One might not be more permissive of an evil of a social evil or one’s own, if not sympathizing with it, to a degree.